That Unfortunate Kink
By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
September 23, 2004
In the 2004th year of the Christian calendar, it is painful to learn that a Secondary school in Trinidad and Tobago is denying a young student a place because of her chosen hair style, an action that is supported by the Ministry of Education. Mervyn Crichlow, a spokesperson for the Ministry, had no problem in uttering the following inanity: "The school is a private secondary school which has it rules, regulations, dress code and code of conduct. Parents at the start of the school term are advised of the school's rules and regulations. What we are trying to do is to have the parents comply." So that if tomorrow morning St. Charles decided that it will not accept African children or members of the Muslim faith then all would be well because, as the Ministry informs us, a private school is free to make its own laws and insist that they be followed.
In the first instance we must explode the myth that a private school or a private company is exempt from the laws of Trinidad and Tobago. A private hospital has no right (and cannot) deny emergency health care to a person, be he citizen or visitor, because it possesses its own rules, regulations and codes of conduct. No code of conduct or regulation can contravene a citizen's fundamental rights that are enshrined in the Constitution. Neither a Ministry of Health nor a Ministry of Education has any business supporting a private institution or a public company that breaks the laws of Trinidad and Tobago. Companies, both private and public, are allowed to operate in our country because we, as citizens, through our elected representatives (that is, our legislators) allow them to do so. Needless to say, we also have the power to prevent them from operating if they do not conform to our laws and uphold a citizen's human rights. Private ownership does not confer any special privileges on a company or a school.
Now, to the equally as serious question: the right of an educational institution to deny a student a place in their school because of her Rasta hairstyle. Such an act, supported by the Ministry of Education, is an abomination and testifies to the absolute unfitness of such officials to be running our educational affairs. If they have no understanding of our history they can have no grasp of our special challenges and what it means to be an educated Trinbagonian in the year 2004. After all, the central function of an education is to instill certain values into a citizen. If such a system cannot understand the importance, both symbolic and actual, of an African child wearing a Rasta hairstyle proudly, then we are neither ready for Vision 2020 nor are we serious about what constitutes a conscious Afro-Trinbagonian.
Ever since Africans arrived in this land from Africa or the other Caribbean islands their oppressors (who invariably were white) taught them that they had bad hair, smelled badly, were black, ugly and stupid and their salvation lay in imitating and inculcating their attitudes and values. An acceptable or aspiring African (perhaps Negro might be the more appropriate term) had to give up his or her braids, her religion, and even her culture if she wished to enjoy the educational and economic fruits of this land. Among those values, the straitening one's hair was paramount. It made one look and feel more like the oppressor.
This mindlessness can be documented as early as the first year of the twentieth century. On July 8, 1901, the following advertisement, entitled "The Negro Problem," appeared in the Trinidad Mirror: It read as follows:
"Some people think that there is a great problem as to what is to be done with the Negro Race, but those individuals are not at all in doubt on the subject. They just go on their way like everybody else and 'LET THE PROBLEM RIP' which shows their good sense.
"The only thing which bothers them is that unfortunate KINK in their hair which makes it difficult to keep up with the fashions, which need JET STRAIGHT HAIR. Well that difficulty can be moved by the use of T.O.K. which will take out the Kinks and make it Soft and Straight-POMADE RACEL will soften and improve the complexion and the thing is done. I AM DARK BUT COMELY, what can the Chaps want more?" (A reproduction of this ad can be found on page 363 of my book, Beyond Boundaries.)
One hundred and three years later, a class of people called educators still does not know how to deal with that "unfortunate KINK" that still kafuffles their minds and leaves them with a similar feeling of white desiring. They still long to possess that whiteness of skin, that softness of hair, the narrowness of the lips and hips that constitute beauty and acceptability. How can such a palpable rejection of blackness and naturalness still be so prevalent in an age of republicanism?
In the 1930s some African brothers in Jamaica decided they needed to go back to their roots and to testify to their African origins by articulating a theory of being (that is, a philosophy) and adopting appropriate symbols and dress codes to emphasize the cogency of their faith. Indeed, a Rasta was defined as "he who never will relinquish the fact that he is an African." For the Rastafarian, "the twin concepts of African Redemption (Repatriation to Ethiopia) and the divinity of the most revered rule of Africa-Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, the Conquering Lion of Judea" were central to their faith. For these beliefs, they were beaten in the streets of Kingston and humiliated by their own African brothers. In fact, conditions got so bad that in 1960 the University of the West Indies undertook a study, the results of which were examined by Rex Nettleford in his book, Mirror, Mirror: Identity, Race and Protest in Jamaica.
Needless to say, the dominant society-in this case the whites and those Africans aspiring to be white-had no problems in condemning the Rasta's belief that Ras Tafari, Haile Selassie's original name, is the Living God; that Ethiopia is the black man's home; that Repatriation is the way of redemption for black men; and that the ways of the white man are evil (Mirror, Mirror). More importantly, one of the central tenets of the Rastafarians read as follows: "We strongly object to sharp implements used in the desecration of the figure of man, e.g., trimming and shaving, tattooing of skin, cutting of flesh. We worship and observe no other God but Ras Tafari." He was also seen as Christ Re-Incarnated.
Such beliefs were not different from those of Christianity and the practices of its adherents. Although some Christians accepted Christ as the Redeemer at the Nicea Council in 325 AD and hence the importance of the Nicene Creed, the Gnostic Christians, another branch of the Christian faith, believed that Christ's resurrection should be seen only as a symbolic event. They never accepted the theory that He rose from the dead. Origen, one of the early theologicians of the Christian Church called "the literal view of the resurrection the 'faith of fools.'" (Quoted in Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels.) So that when the Rastafarians exclaims, "Jah Lives!" they are making a similar claim to the divinity of their Savior (Ras Tafari,) as the Christians do when they exclaim, "Jesus Lives!" Why, then, can't we respect the Rastafarian's profession of faith and the practices that accompany it?
Today, after years of brutality, humiliation and rejection, followers of the Rastafarian faith seek to pursue their faith in a land they sometimes describe as Babylon. They believe in the sanctity of their dreadlocks as the tenets of their belief prescribe. They believe that sharp implements should not be used to desecrate the figure of men and women. There should be no trimming, no shaving or tattooing of the flesh. The Hasidic Jews believe in the sanctity of their side curls (payos) and their beards which they wear in obedience to the commandment in their scripture (The Torah) that commands: "You shall not round the corners of your heads, nor mar the edges of your beards" (Leviticus 19:27). In this context, I cannot think of anyone in the Ministry of Education who would ask a Hasidic Jew to cut his side curls or shave his beard if he wishes to attend one of our high schools. Some young men do mature very early in age.
When a school bans a student from attending its classes because she wears a certain hairstyle that institution is no longer in the business of educating citizens. It enters into the business of ideology in that it privileges certain class and religious practices over others. Such discriminatory practices reveals/exposes deep class and religious conflicts that are hidden in the ideological assumptions of the society. This is why some people get harsher sentences than others and why some people get certain jobs while others are assigned to more menial positions in the society.
C. Benjamin from Cunupia alerts us to the class and religious significance of this event when she asks: "When a school principal states that dreadlocks do not conform to their dress code, what code is that?" She answers: "In my opinion, there seems to be a bias in favour of chemically-altered hairstyles for Afro-Trinidadian girls. Parents of these girls shell out hundreds of dollars per year to have their daughters' hair denatured from tight kinky curls into the more acceptable loser jeri-curls or 'relaxed' to the point where it could be described as 'bone-straight.' As a matter of fact, a hair-altering trip to the hairdresser has become almost a rite of passage for young black girls just at the crucial stage of their development when they begin to develop into womanhood."
Such observations leads us to ask how far have we come from 1901 when PROMADE RACHEL was supposed to take care of all of the Negro Problems. It forces us to consider how far the leaders of our educational system have advanced over the attitudes of their compatriots of a hundred years ago and whether they are intent on having our students replicate the same self-hatred that generations of our leaders tried to remove from our psyche. As one listens to our educators at the Ministry of Education and the St. Charles High School one wishes to ask if Eric Williams chronicled the achievements of The Negro in the Caribbean (1944) in vain, whether C. L.R. exposed the heroic struggle of our Haitian compatriots in vain when wrote Black Jacobins (1938), or whether Walter Rodney's grounding with his brothers as his book of the same name proclaims was nothing but a momentary anxiety. Wasn't it The Mighty Duke who asked plaintively, "How many more must die" before we can join the freedom train? Must there be another Black Power Revolt to remind us of how blackness was stifled in this land?
What does all of this say about the reactionary behavior of those persons who we have been placed in charge of our educational system and whose programs and curricula offerings are supposed to inculcate desirable values into the present generation of students so that they do not relive the follies of the past? Can one's right to assert one's freedom of religious expression be solved by simply transferring one from a "private" to a "public" school; or is it that the religious dogma of one religion (European) is presumed to be superior to all others? How long, as Brother Khafra Kambon asked, must this "madness" continue in our land? Or is it that our society is more concerned with what's on a student's head rather than what's inside his mind? Can it be that we are more interested in the shadow than we are with the substance?
Ms. Lynette Marshall, the mother of Kalifa Logan, the student involved, has decided that she will not cut off her daughter's locks nor accept a transfer to another school. The National Association for the Empowerment of African People (NAEAP) supports her position unequivocally. We support Ms. Marshall's action and will assist her in whatever action she takes. It is about time that the government of Trinidad and Tobago realizes its constitutional duty to support the rights of all of its citizens to practice their religion as they see fit and to respect the symbols, the iconography, the clothing items and the hairstyles that attend their faiths. We cannot be free if a government succumbs to the dictates of a school principal who believes that the symbols, iconography, clothing and hairstyles of Catholicism and Christianity and the values inherent in Eurocentricism are superior to those of all other religions in the land.
Kalifa Logan must be allowed to attend the school to which she was admitted. Nothing else should be acceptable to the people of Trinidad and Tobago.
Archbishop overrules nun on dreadlocks girl
After a public outcry over the action, Archbishop Gilbert finally stepped in yesterday and gave his ruling, apologising and welcoming Logan back.
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